“What Prophetic Speeches are For”
Sermon and Worship Service for
Martin Luther King, Jr. Sunday
The Unitarian Universalist Congregation of
Columbia, South Carolina
January 15, 2017
The Rev. Jennie Ann Barrington, Interim Minister
Opening Words [Antoine de Saint-Exupery]:
“In every crowd are certain persons who seem just like the rest, yet they bear amazing messages.”
First Reading: from, “On the Pulse of Morning,” by Maya Angelou, written for the 1993 Presidential Inauguration
A Rock, A River, A Tree
Hosts to species long since departed,
Marked the mastodon,
The dinosaur, who left dry tokens
Of their sojourn here
On our planet floor,
Any broad alarm of their hastening doom
Is lost in the gloom of dust and ages.
But today, the Rock cries out to us, clearly, forcefully,
Come, you may stand upon my
Back and face your distant destiny,
But seek no haven in my shadow.
I will give you no hiding place down here…
The Rock cries out to us today, you may stand on me,
But do not hide your face.
Across the wall of the world,
A River sings a beautiful song, it says,
Come rest here by my side.
Each of you a bordered country,
Delicate and strangely made proud,
Yet thrusting perpetually under siege…
Come, clad in peace and I will sing the songs
The Creator gave to me when I and the
Tree and the rock were one.
Before cynicism was a bloody sear across your
Brow and when you yet knew you still
The River sings and sings on.
There is a true yearning to respond to
The singing River and the wise Rock.
So say the Asian, the Hispanic, the Jew
The African, The Native American, the Sioux,
The Catholic, the Muslim, the French, the Greek,
The Irish, the Rabbi, the Priest, the Sheikh,
The Gay, the Straight, the Preacher,
The privileged, the homeless, the Teacher.
They hear. They all hear. They all hear
The speaking of the Tree.
They hear the first and last of every Tree
Speak to humankind today, saying,
Come to me, here beside the River.
Plant yourselves beside the River.
Each of you, descendant of some passed
On traveler, has been paid for.
You, who gave me my first name…
Sold, stolen, arriving on a nightmare
Praying for a dream….
Here, root yourselves beside me.
I am that Tree planted by the River,
Which will not be moved.
I, the Rock, I, the River, I the Tree
I am yours– your Passages have been paid.
Lift up your faces, you have a piercing need
For this bright morning dawning for you.
History, despite its wrenching pain,
Cannot be unlived, yet, if faced
With courage, need not be lived again.
Lift up your eyes upon
This day breaking for you.
Give birth again to the dream.
Women, children, men,
Take it into the palms of your hands.
Mold it into the shape of your most
Private need. Sculpt it into
The image of your most public self.
Lift up your hearts.
Each new hour holds new chances
For a new beginning.
The horizon leans forward,
Offering you space to place new steps of change.
Here, on the pulse of this fine day
You may have the courage
To look up, and out, and upon me, the
Rock, the River, the Tree, your country.
No less to Midas than the mendicant.
No less to you now than the mastodon then.
Here on the pulse of this new day
You may have the grace to look up and out
And into your sister’s eyes, into
Your brother’s face, your country
And say simply
Special Music “Crying for Freedom,” by Sweet Honey in the Rock
Second Reading “Of History and Hope,” written by Miller Williams for the 1997 Presidential Inauguration
We have memorized America,
how it was born and who we have been and where.
In ceremonies and silence we say the words,
telling the stories, singing the old songs.
We like the places they take us. Mostly we do.
The great and all the anonymous dead are there.
We know the sound of all the sounds we brought.
The rich taste of it is on our tongues.
But where are we going to be, and why, and who?
The disenfranchised dead want to know.
We mean to be the people we meant to be,
to keep on going where we meant to go.
But how do we fashion the future? Who can say how
except in the minds of those who will call it Now?
The children. The children. And how does our garden grow?
With waving hands — oh, rarely in a row —
and flowering faces. And brambles, that we can no longer allow.
Who were many people coming together
cannot become one people falling apart.
Who dreamed for every child an even chance
cannot let luck alone turn doorknobs or not.
Whose law was never so much of the hand as the head
cannot let chaos make its way to the heart.
Who have seen learning struggle from teacher to child
cannot let ignorance spread itself like rot.
We know what we have done and what we have said,
and how we have grown, degree by slow degree,
believing ourselves toward all we have tried to become —
just and compassionate, equal, able, and free.
All this in the hands of children, eyes already set
on a land we never can visit — it isn’t there yet —
but looking through their eyes, we can see
what our long gift to them may come to be.
If we can truly remember, they will not forget.
The Morning Sermon: “What Prophetic Speeches are For”
Last Sunday evening, I watched the latest episode of “Madam Secretary.” In that fictional alternate universe, the Secretary of State is a woman, played by actress Tea Leoni, and her boss, the current President, has just won reelection by running as an Independent. They are in the days leading up to the Inauguration. The Secretary of State and her husband have three children. Their oldest daughter, Stevie, has just begun an internship with the White House Chief of Staff, who is recovering from a recent heart attack. Stevie’s first assignment turns out to be very challenging, and also amusing. She has to shepherd the United States Poet Laureate, Roland Hobbs, such that he gets from the airport, to the Inauguration, in one piece, and with the Inaugural poem. That was when I realized that, for our nation’s upcoming Inauguration, there will not be an Inaugural poem.
There will be many people for whom that omission won’t matter at all. In fact, in that episode of “Madam Secretary,” the White House Chief of Staff says, sarcastically, “You can thank JFK for this enduring legacy which forces us to stand in the cold for an extra twenty minutes.” But this week I have felt sad about the absence of an Inaugural Poem. I have grieved that we will not hear, collectively as a nation, a work of art that has been written specifically for that occasion, nor will we have it to continue to contemplate and wrestle with in the years to come. It is said that preachers are supposed to “Comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable.” By that I mean that we all need to hear words that empathize with our current circumstances and challenge us to stretch ourselves, individually, yes, but especially as whole groups of people, to make this world more beautiful, compassionate, and fair. We need the comforting and challenging words of prophets and poets. And some poets are prophetic.
In my sadness during this week before the Inauguration, I am not alone. There must be some celebrating, by some people, in some parts of our nation, but I am not hearing it, nor seeing it. What I have been sensing, as the Inauguration approaches, is a collective sense of foreboding. There is a great cloud of emotions in our nation that we cannot untangle nor completely understand this week. But we can focus on the fact that there will be no official Inaugural Poem. And we can do better than that. We can look to the comforting and challenging, insightful and inspirational, words of poets and prophets. And as this is the Sunday of Martin Luther King, Jr. Weekend, we can begin with that great prophet’s words.
A couple weeks ago I sat down and read several of Martin Luther King’s sermons and speeches. And they really were a comfort and help to me in our highly-conflicted political times. I will save a couple of them for the worship service two Sundays from now, when we, and many congregations in South Carolina, will take a stand against gun violence. But the speech of his that spoke to me for this Sunday’s service is called, “Loving Your Enemies.” Dr. King acknowledges that this is very hard to do. And he asks that we begin by analyzing ourselves. There could be things we have done in our past, or things about ourselves personally, that are causing others to dislike us. And there are ways that we, and our nation, have participated in, and benefitted from, power structures and privileges that have left groups of people disadvantaged and oppressed. He writes, “So we begin to love our enemies and love those persons that hate us whether in collective life or individual life by looking at ourselves.” He then says that we must “discover the element of good” in our enemies. He says we must look for “the image of God” in the person who hates us.” Then we will see that every person deserves to be treated with dignity and respect. He then says that, rather than defeat our enemy, we must flood them with love. By “love” he does not mean something merely emotional nor superficial. He means “agape,” a love that seeks nothing in return. You do not have to like a person to show them this type of higher love. He wrote, “Love is creative, understanding goodwill for all people. It is the refusal to defeat any individual. When you rise to the level of love, of its great beauty and power, you seek only to defeat evil systems. Individuals who happen to be caught up in that system, you love, but you seek to defeat the system.”
These words can be hard to hear, and they are even harder to put into practice in our daily lives. But that’s what prophetic speeches are for– to name the imbalances, injustices, and conflicts in our society, and urge us to work to correct them. Prophetic speeches hold out the vision that our nation can be a more fair and compassionate place for all its citizens, including those who are marginalized and discriminated against.
So in my sadness at the absence of an Inaugural Poem this year, and my conviction that we can do better than that, I looked at some of the Inaugural Poems for past Presidents. I learned that there has not always been one. The first one, in 1857, was called, “An Ode in Honor of the Inauguration of Buchanan & Breckinridge, President and Vice President of the United States.” The second one was, “An Inaugural Poem Dedicated to Abraham Lincoln of Illinois and Andrew Jackson of Tennessee,” in 1865. Then there was the uniquely quirky result of John F. Kennedy inviting Robert Frost to be the Inaugural Poet for Kennedy’s ceremony. The poem Frost recited for the occasion is called, “The Gift Outright.” And I have to admit that it has never really resonated with me. Come to find out, that’s because it was not what Frost had written for the occasion. In the glaring sunlight shining off the snow, and with the faint typescript, Frost was unable to read the piece of paper that he’d brought. So he recited, “The Gift Outright,” because he knew it from memory. The poem that Frost wrote for John F. Kennedy’s Inauguration is called, “Dedication.”
(This next information is from the website, “about education.”) “The next president who included a poet in the proceedings surrounding his inauguration was Jimmy Carter, in 1977, but the poem didn’t make it into the actual swearing-in ceremony. James Dickey read his poem, “The Strength of Fields,” at the Kennedy Center gala after Carter’s inauguration.” The poem, which is hauntingly beautiful, describes people walking under streetlights at night, with moths flying around them, train whistles in the distance, and the solar-system floating above them. “We can all be saved by a secret blooming,” the poet writes, and, “The dead lie under the pastures. They look on and help.” The poet concludes with:
“The moon lying on the brain
as on the excited sea as on
The strength of fields. Lord, let me shake
With purpose. Wild hope can always spring
From tended strength. Everything is in that.
That and nothing but kindness. More kindness, dear Lord
Of the renewing green. That is where it all has to start:
With the simplest things. More kindness will do nothing less
Than save every sleeping one
And night-walking one
My life belongs to the world. I will do what I can.”
(This, again, is from the “about education” website):
“It was another sixteen years before poetry entered again into the official inauguration ceremony. That was in 1993, when Maya Angelou wrote and read, ‘On the Pulse of Morning,’ for Bill Clinton’s first inauguration.” I have listened to Ms. Angelou recite it, and I have re-read it countless times. To me, this poem is the same as scripture. When I was in seminary, I cited it as a sacred text in a paper for a professor who was very scholarly, and very Catholic. She gave me a pretty good grade on the paper. But she simply could not understand that I would categorize a contemporary poem as scripture. In the end, she and I had to just agree to disagree about that. But I am still appreciative and grateful that we had that conversation. I am glad that she spoke her mind to me.
The next Inaugural Poem was for Bill Clinton’s ceremony in 1997; Miller Williams’, “Of History and Hope.” And for President Barack Obama’s two ceremonies, we heard Elizabeth Alexander’s, “Praise Song for the Day, Praise Song for Struggle,” and Richard Blanco’s poem, “One Today.” At their best, the poems for the President’s Inauguration have been inspired by great works of art and literature, and by science and philosophy. And they have looked at the past history of the human race. The poets have then spoken to our present pain and attributes and dreams. And they have called us to live as nobly as we can.
And now to get back to that episode of “Madam Secretary,” in which poor Stevie is simply trying to produce an Inaugural Poet, for the morning of the Inauguration, with a suitable poem in hand. That fictional poet, Roland Hobbs, it turns out, has a tendency to behave boorishly, irresponsibly, and confrontationally. Our fictional intern, Stevie, has her hands full. Hobbs refuses to go directly to the hotel, which he objects to as being too ostentatious and capitalistic. He does not want to sight-see nor visit Georgetown, either. He insists that they go to a seedy-looking bar. I think it is called, “George Washington’s Tooth.” Hobbs begins drinking heavily. Stevie phones her fiancé, a British man named Jareth. She says to him:
“I really need your help. I am in a dive bar, with the Poet Laureate, who is supposed to be composing a poem for the Inauguration. And unless it’s going to be about scotch, I don’t think that’s going to happen.” Jareth replies, jovially, “I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been in that exact predicament!” But he agrees to come to the bar, and help her try to get Hobbs to the hotel room. That, however, only makes matters worse. Jareth feels that poetry can be “a waste of time and brain cells, and also ever so slightly indulgent, unnecessary, convoluted, redundant, pretentious, arrogant, and not essential to the evolution of mankind.” “Well, what is your occupation, then?” the poet asks. Jareth tells him that he is a physicist. Hobbs hoots and sputters, and gets right in Jareth’s face. He asks Jareth how he can live with such an unimaginative, reductionist view of the world, and where his enjoyment of life is without the “residence of beauty.” Jareth, completely undeterred gets right back in the poet’s face. He talks with the poet about the American theoretical physicist Richard Feynman’s philosophy of beauty. Feynman wrote:
“I have a friend who’s an artist and has sometimes taken a view which I don’t agree with very well. He’ll hold up a flower and say, “look how beautiful it is,” and I’ll agree. Then he says, “I, as an artist, can see how beautiful this is but you as a scientist take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing,” and I think that he’s kind of nutty. First of all, the beauty that he sees is available to other people and to me too, I believe. Although I may not be quite as refined aesthetically as he is … I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. At the same time, I see much more about the flower than he sees. I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside, which also have a beauty. I mean it’s not just beauty at this dimension, at one centimeter; there’s also beauty at smaller dimensions, the inner structure, also the processes. The fact that the colors in the flower evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate it is interesting; it means that insects can see the color. It adds a question: does this aesthetic sense also exist in the lower forms? Why is it aesthetic? All kinds of interesting questions which the science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery, and the awe of a flower. It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts.”
Well, Stevie and Jareth finally get Hobbs back to the hotel, for some much-needed sleep. And the next morning, they find him coming back from a coffee shop, full of vim and vigor and good cheer. He has completed the poem for the Inauguration, he assures them. It may have been at almost the last hour, but he found his inspiration. That episode was written by Barbara Hall. (She created, “Joan of Arcadia” and “Judging Amy.”) And clearly she, too, believes that we can do better than omitting poetic and prophetic words in this Inaugural season. She concludes the episode, as I will conclude this sermon, with that lately-inspired Inaugural Poem. The poet proclaims:
“Sitting high above the Potomac Swamp
In the long shadow of the spilled blood and dreams of
The Founding Fathers and Founding Mothers,
I can see more than the average man sees.
I imagine the cells, the nucleus, of things.
I see colors that evolved to speak to the smallest of eyes,
Sacrifices that meet in this cataclysm of longing for what can,
And what can, overcoming what cannot.
In the majesty of the quantum world,
In the beauty of building blocks,
In the tiniest of elements,
I glimpse the privilege of being.
This alertness does not subtract; it adds.
It is not our inheritance merely to abide
in this beautiful world.
It is our inheritance to understand it.”
*Benediction [Olympia Brown]:
“We can never make the world safe by fighting. Every nation must learn that the people of all nations are children of God, and must share the wealth of the world. You may say this is impracticable, far away, can never be accomplished, but it is the work we are appointed to do. Sometime, somehow, somewhere, we must ever teach this great lesson.”